TILLMAN TUESDAY: University of Georgia’s First Tillman Scholar Finds Passion in Wildlife Research

Featured Media, News, Blog | 08/04/2015

Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, over 400 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, science, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support. This week we catch up with 2013 Tillman Scholar and Marine Joseph Colbert who is working towards his Masters in Ecology and Biology at University of Georgia with plans to graduate in December 2016. As a previous member of the Jekyll Island Georgia Sea Turtle Center’s AmeriCorps program, Joseph’s primary focus area is conservation – his duties have included using radio telemetry to track alligators, box turtles, and rattlesnakes; coordinating general wildlife inventories; giving public presentations; and developing educational materials to engage others about the ecosystem. Currently as a research assistant with UGA he studies the wildlife and plant community response to prescribed fire in maritime grasslands, a rare threatened habitat type that harbors high densities of wildlife including several priority species.

 What motivated you to join the military?

“When I was young I was one of those kids who ran wild, but at the end of the day I was a decent student and did okay in school. I graduated high school in 2001 but I wasn’t really doing anything. Then September 11th happened and I remember sitting on my couch watching all the news coverage of everything that was going on. That sealed my decision that I was going to enlist in the military. I had always felt compelled to join the service regardless. Most of my family served in one way or another – grandfather (Air Force), grandfather (Army), dad, uncles, and brother (Navy) and I joined the Marine Corps.”

How many times did you deploy and what was your responsibility?

“After I signed the papers to enlist, I was given four days and then I left on direct ship in April, 2002. By January 2003, I was in Kuwait and we started the Iraq invasion in March. Our unit was in Nasiriyah and my company was the one that went through ambush alley. During those seven-and-a-half months, out of our 211 men we had 18 guys killed in action and 32 wounded, most of who were medevaced.

We left Iraq in August 2003, came back and regrouped. During my second deployment, my role was Support and Stability Operations. We redeployed in April 2004 lasting until the first free elections in January 2005. Seeing people vote for the first time was very powerful as there were so many tears of happiness.”

While serving four years in the military, what did you learn about yourself throughout your deployment or your time in the service that you never knew before?

“When I was growing up, I never really gave much thought to what I wanted to do, but I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. When I joined the Marine Corps, I automatically felt like I was part of something. It was one of the best days of my life when I walked across the parade deck and became a Marine. After serving with the Marine Corps for four years, it was really hard for me to make the decision if I was going to stay in or get out. If I got out, I really wanted to be part of something bigger than myself, as I had never felt that desire before I joined the military. A sense of purpose was one of the most important things I learned.”

Why did you decide to get out after four years?

“I felt that with a Marine background I could go out in society and do something big and maybe even impact more change outside the Marine Corps. I felt that I could be something more in the Marine Corps, but I also definitely knew that college was in my future. I was late to the grad school game with limited support. The Tillman foundation was the only realistic chance I had at support to earn my Master’s degree. Pat’s story touched me and I really wanted to be part of his legacy. I don’t get really emotional, but when I wrote my essays for the application for the scholarship I was definitely emotional.”

Colbert Deployment

With your graduate school future hinging on the Tillman Scholarship, what was your reaction when you received the news that you had been selected as one of the recipients?

“I was out in the field radio tracking some wildlife and I about dropped! After I ignored the calls a couple of times, they finally left me a message and when we connected on the phone I was in disbelief. Anything the Pat Tillman Foundation ever needs I’m right here, ready and willing to help out because I want to make y’all proud!”

What has the Tillman Scholarship enabled you to do that you may not have otherwise had the opportunity to do?

“Starting with the ability to go to grad school at that time was huge because if I had not received the support I would have had to defer until the following year. The financial support has been so very valuable in various ways and I refer to it in any presentation I give. The foundation is attached to everything I have done and everything I’m doing now as a scientist. With the foundation investing in me, it makes me want to bring out the best in myself and make the folks at the foundation and the other scholars proud. I want to represent in such a positive manner.”

Tell us about your passion for wildlife and what you are doing now as a scientist?

“I think everyone has a certain amount of curiosity with wildlife. Some people see an insect and think it looks fascinating or pretty. I became that person because I was interested in that stuff. I had no idea that’s what I would do when I got out of the Marine Corps, but I got a really cool paid internship at the University of South Carolina for transfer students in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program dedicated to research. I found this lab that was radio tracking rattlesnakes, and doing surveys for crawfish in creeks and rivers. All I had to do was change my major from Psychology to general Biology. It provided great people connections so I signed up for the research position. Once I got into it, I was totally hooked! I couldn’t picture myself doing anything else. Now, after a couple of years as an intern, I’ve helped establish a research program through an AmeriCorps position I had as a conservation member. The program that started out with just myself and my supervisor has grown to eight AmeriCorps members and six graduate students working on a multitude of wildlife and habitat projects.”

For all of those individuals out there who are freaked out about snakes, how close have you come to rattlesnakes? And what is the coolest animal you have come in contact with that most people do not have the opportunity to?

“Rattlesnakes are not what people think! I think they are an awesome animal. They’re an ambush predator and sometimes sit in the same place for weeks at a time waiting for the right time to strike. The cool thing is that snakes do not vector any diseases to people like all of the mammals they eat. I’ve radio tracked snakes that have transmitters implanted inside their bodies. I wear snake boots up to my knees but still tip toe around when we’re tracking. I’ve had my boot graze one of them while tracking, but it’s not as bad as one would think, since they just sit there and confidently rely on their camouflage.

One of the coolest things I have ever done is radio track rattlesnakes and bring people out to the field to see it. As a result, people who are scared of snakes change their mind about them after they see them. They’re not a fast animal, they can’t jump. I never anticipate getting bit. We use tongs, and clear tubes that we teach them to go in when handling them. The only reason I would put my hands on them is to put the radio transmitter in them, otherwise I just observe them in the field.”

What is next for you following graduation in 2016?

“I think the best choice for me would be to go on and get a PhD. I feel like I have two directions I can go – focus on policy, or I could go the research and management route as wildlife education is a big area. Having the PhD will give me a little more ammo for whichever route I choose.”

What is your five-year plan and where do you see yourself?

“I think that’s how long it’s going to take me to get my PhD. I know it’s a long time but it’s something I want to do and that in turn will dictate my next project and expertise. Whether I go into policy or research, I see myself focusing on conservation. We’re losing so many habitats we don’t know enough about. Ecosystem service is a relatively new concept and people don’t understand the value of a forest. A developer sees logs, but nobody values the carbon, chemicals, and toxins it pulls out of the environment. I want to be a part of the movement to change that mentality.”